The Camino Invierno (also signed occasionally as the Camino Real or Camino de Sur) is most definitely a road less travelled: so much so that it is not even on the common maps of Camino routes, because it has not been conferred official status (yet).
I first heard about it this year when our Chairman returned from the Friends of the Camino Associations Conference held in June in Galicia. The Spanish were encouraging pilgrims to take this route to lessen the congestion on the Sarria-Santiago leg of the Camino Francés. As my intrepid friend, Sandra, and I had walked this leg back in the last Holy Year, 2010, (as well as from St JeanPied-de-Port to Estella) we decided to divert from the CF this year and test out the route. The Invierno (CI) is definitely not for the fainthearted as it is quite isolated and challenging, and there is a shortage of the usual pilgrim facilities ie albergues, bars/cafes (and therefore ‘aseos!), as well as scarcer way-marking. In fact, we were such a novelty on the route that the common refrain from locals was, while swiping their brows, “Muy lejos!” ie a very long way away [from Australia]). We only ever saw other pilgrims towards the end of the route when the VDLP joins in (after Lalin), and then only 1-2 a day. Maybe this was partly due to the fact that we were now ‘out of season’–post European summer holidays.
The variable C Invierno signage
Stunning scenery— Las Medulas area
The CI branches off from the CF at Ponferrada, and then travels 310k to Santiago via a rural, windy and often hilly route. It is quite beautiful. Since we had already walked from Estella to Ponferrada, covering the Meseta which we had not walked last time due to lack of time, we were well in the ‘pilgrim groove’ by the time we arrived at Ponferrada. However, there is no English guidebook for the CI – all we had was a pamphlet of the route with major towns listed, copious notes from the CSJ and a screed of Google maps done for us by a friend. We were happier after we found a Spanish guidebook at the Ponferrada Tourist Office for 10€, containing strip maps we could easily follow, with distances shown between towns. Dear John Brierley, please write a guidebook for the lovely rural Camino Invierno!
Almost midday, and still misty en route to Outeira
We worked between all our sources of information along the route, and completed the CI in 13 days (the book gives 2 plans: for 9 days and 12). The main problem is that there a few times where the distance between towns is 30k with NO accommodation in between and not many albergues. The latter did not bother us as we were quite happy to settle for real beds and sheets (!) but we could not manage more than 20-25k a day so used taxis a couple of times to help cover part of the distance. Sometimes we were only able to go 10k because there was nowhere to stay after that within our reach. Each night we planned the next day’s walk, according to accommodation… and feet! We prefer to be completely free and usually ‘wing’ our accommodation but, gradually on this route, we found that it was a good thing to decide exactly which hostal (or albergue) we wanted to stay at and organise it before we left. While I do have some Spanish (a huge asset on this route) I would politely ask the hotel/bar receptionist/manager to telephone ahead and book us in so we had a definite destination. This was after our experience at O Barco, a city where we were redirected backwards to a hostal (“cerca, cinco minutes!”) which turned out to be far more that ‘5 minutes’ away, and not exactly ‘nearby’. We developed a ‘rule’ after that that we never went back on our path! (Another truism we learned to be wary about was that if a local says it is nearby, it is probably not, for us anyway as peregrinas cansadas (tired)! Our 2 other ‘truisms’ were “in Spain it is not about the customer” – told us by the chef of our cooking class in Barcelona – and the villages seem to always recede in the distance!)
Belesar down below on the Rio Mino – we walked down the mountain to get there and then up the other side (on Roman roads-hard work)
So, Day 1, and we set out–in the dark–from the Albergue San Nicolas de Flue at Ponferrada, feeling more confident about finding our way along this largely untried and unknown route: ‘in the dark’ because the hospitalero jovially awoke everyone, turning the lights on at 6.15! As it wasn’t light till after 8am, we were a bit miffed at having to start a new route in the dark and, indeed, a kindly local wanted to redirect us to the main CF route out. However we did easily locate the first plinth at the stone bridge de Bierzo and then were on our way. Looking back over Ponferrada swathed in morning mist was stunning! The views continued, uphill and down dale, often with mountains either side, or with a river in between. There was the day, after the 100k mark (very exciting!) when we walked down a beautiful (but not easy walking) rocky Roman ‘road’ for 3k to a riverside bar (which would not serve us food because it was actually a restaurant), only to gaze up over the Rio Mino and up the other side to a huge high hill! Oh yes, we did have to go up that, another few ks, part of which was another really steep rocky Roman road. Then 5k down a modern tarmac road to our hotel, pre-booked at Chantada. Quite a day.
Church of Fatima at A Rua—we stayed behind—up some alleyways—at the very old Casa Solana run by Asuncion
“The Camino will provide.” And indeed it did. The synchronicities just kept happening. One at Quiroga where the municipal albergue was closed but with a notice on it to ring for help – right at that moment, a UK ex-pat local walking past heard us speaking English and offered to help. He rang the manager and we were let in, to find we had the whole place to ourselves, as well as a bath – balm to weary pilgrims.
Run by Asuncion who runs the Amigos association in the area
But the most amazing synchronicity was that my birthday just happened to fall on the day after we were due to arrive at Monforte de Lemas, which boasts a Parador! I didn’t know this until the night before when I happened to glance at the battered notes I was carrying. I immediately booked it on my phone (only 85€) and we took a taxi there the next day, as it was a 30k day with nothing in between. We thought it ‘obligatory’ to make the most of this fantastic opportunity and thoroughly enjoyed the palatial luxury of this 17th century Benedictine monastery to the fullest, with its free pre-dinner champagne, silver service meal, and amazing buffet breakfast (to say nothing of the bathroom!). Meanwhile we also explored the town and the precincts of its Roman bridge, favouring its local bar with wonderful tapas and Wifi. This area is also part of the Ribeira Sacra, famous for its wine.
The CI follows the Rio Sil for several days with spectacular scenery. Evidence of the Romans continues along the route and if one wants to deviate a little, there are gold mines at Las Medulas to inspect, as well as slate mines further on. We were constantly walking past families grape-picking, lands being prepared for winter crops, late maize and sunflowers; cows and sheep as well as piggeries and a few beehives. We wondered why cows were being milked so late only to discover later that the milkers (‘Swiss’ cows) are kept mostly inside sheds and only beef cattle are free to roam. Maize is grown for the animals and although we saw pumpkins growing everywhere, we never ate any. We found the locals to be generous and hospitable–a farmer came off his tractor to give us grapes, while later an elderly couple hurried back to hand us a bag of fresh fruit.
The Invierno is a most tranquilo, rural and scenic route, highly recommended to anyone who wants to take a different and more peaceful way to SdC. Despite the reduced pilgrim infrastructure, we had no trouble collecting sellos for our credencial (but collecting our distance Compostela at the Pilgrim Office was a little more complicated with 2 routes to include on it). Go for it!
Alto de Faro, Windmills
looking back to Chantada, swathed in mist
The Parador at Monforte de Lemas
Birthday drinks and English conversation with UK expats at a casa rural near Fion
Discarded pilgrim ‘mementos’ on the outskirts of Santiago